By David, McGuire, Shark Stewards
Floating, weightless, my eyes stare down into the impenetrable like the streaks of sunlight. Above me, the weight of one hundred feet of water is the blue Pacific. Ears ticking, throat constricting, my brain screams for oxygen. It is time to return to the surface, to the land of the living, back from the black into the blue.
To divers and swimmers, there are few things we are more conscious of than our breath. Following a year of isolation, sheltering in place, hunkered down, and hiding during the pandemic, I contracted COVID 19. My case was not severe, but I suffered more from fear of long-Covid, and the long-term effects on my lungs and breathing. Scuba diving and underwater filming are critical functions of my profession and the foundation for my mental health. Not long after my infection, I re-entered the ocean for a swim. Plunging into the San Francisco Bay, I suffered from shortness of breath. Freediving a week later, my breath-holding ability declined, and my anxiety increased. These were the obvious effects of a lingering respiratory disease. Yet the more insidious and unanticipated symptoms of strained mental health caused by the lack of outdoor swimming and the social activity of diving were more severe. Trapped indoors, depression crept in through the window.
It is now a year past that infection, and as the world crawls out of isolation, I reflect on the loss of two fellow swimmers to suicide and the near-loss of a young man close to me, a teenage student who is who transformed from a tanned beach boy to a vampire in a foil windowed blue-screen lit room. Isolation and the resulting decrease in social interaction created increased depression among many during the pandemic, especially among youth. For those who rely on activity and immersion for our well-being, the deprivation of swimming, surfing, or diving was devastating. During lockdown, pools, and beaches were closed. SCUBA shops would not fill tanks due to infection concerns, and travel was non-existent. We had to live with what we had, where we were, and it was usually without our underwater ocean fix.
The lockdown was a dark period for me and for many of my friends who live a great percentage of their time in the ocean, but it was worse for young people.
A 2022 study by John Hopkins concludes the pandemic exacerbated multiple factors that may increase suicides. Continuous media coverage of the pandemic appears to intensify anxiety and fear for individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions. Social distancing has been the main U.S. public health strategy to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The John Hopkins study indicates social isolation is associated with increased suicidal thoughts and is an additional risk factor for depression. Over 70 percent of young people in the U.S. use social media, and although some studies indicate it could alleviate isolation, it can also amplify anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide. These risk factors particularly affect adolescents and young people who are developing socially. These indicators manifest clearly that adolescents and young people are highly prone to suffer from mental health problems during the pandemic. In some cases, these risk factors lead to attempts at suicide.
A 2021 study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) documented a rise in adolescent suicide attempts during the pandemic. The increase started in May 2020 with a particularly alarming spike among girls aged 12–17 from February to March 2021. Along with this trend was an increase in social media use: some by necessity through the schools, some as a means of connecting with others.
The frequency of social media use increased during the pandemic, and physical activity decreased. Social media use increased, with 48 percent of participants using social media for more than 5 hours reported the 2022 study in the journal MMWR. Although social media use is nearly universal among youth (95 percent of teens reported at least 30 min per day), results showed a substantial increase in the time spent using a variety of social media platforms (e.g., Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok) during the initial call to stay at home. Shockingly, over 12 percent of adolescents reported using social media in excess of 10 hours each day. Analyses showed that high virtual time with friends related to higher depression and increased COVID-related stress, although they experienced lower loneliness. Physical activity, particularly for at least 150 minutes each week, significantly decreased the likelihood of negative mood among adolescents during the lockdown. Screen time, specifically other than that spent on online study, had a negative association with mood.
The depression and withdrawal I experienced from my lack of diving is something shared by my students, perhaps even more than adults. A 2021 study by the University of Michigan School of Public Health of over 1000 US youth found that students generally reported feeling physically and mentally better when spending time in nature and wanted to spend more time in nature. Public health policies and practices that eliminate barriers and actively support time spent outside may be feasible and acceptable practices to promote overall well-being among youth. Nature can heal us, and perhaps the ocean can heal more than anything.
After a year of being anchored to my apartment, followed by a long dry spell from diving from my bout with Covid, I had to seek ocean adventure. My old dive buddy and dive author-friend Bruce Watkins invited me over to Kona to dive. There was an aggregation of Tiger sharks being photo-documented, and little was known about these sharks, he said. Heading over to the Big Island, my world reopened. I was welcomed by colorful reef fish, spinner dolphins, and an odd mix of scuba-shark aficionados who greeted me with Aloha. A strange cast of regulars; The Queen of Tigers, Elasmo-Charlie, the Cap’n., Winkles and others frequented the house reef documenting a local shark hotspot. Trading my face mask for a dive mask, I dived into an underwater world of bliss with the tiger sharks. Following a few months of shark therapy, I invited a few students to join me in Kailua-Kona and share this rejuvenating experience. It was good to be back in the ocean, diving and fully alive!
In his book, The Blue Mind, author and ocean activist Wallace “J” Nicholls writes of the transformative powers of the ocean on our psyche. In “Your Brain on Ocean” J’s work documents neuroscientist studies documenting that people are happier in, on, or around the water. The positive ions, the susurration of the sea, and the open space all give us a sense of ease. For me, it is like a great returning, like the fish that climbed from the ancient oceans and then later returned and evolved to become whales. The ocean sustains us all, and for many, the ocean can heal illness and depression. For those with dark thoughts, or despair, returning to the sea might be the best medicine. It is for me, and it could be the cure for youth still suffering the ill effects of this ongoing pandemic.
During the last few decades, the ocean has been suffering a silent-pandemic killing millions of sharks and rays. Shark Stewards is urging youth to dive in and save sharks for our mental and physical health and for the health of the future.
Jones SE, Ethier KA, Hertz M, et al. Mental Health, Suicidality, and Connectedness Among High School Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic — Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey, United States, January–June 2021. MMWR Suppl 2022;71(Suppl-3):16–21. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.su7103a3external icon.
Marciano L, Ostroumova M, Schulz PJ, Camerini AL. Digital Media Use and Adolescents’ Mental Health During the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Front Public Health. 2022;9:793868. Published 2022 Feb 1. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2021.793868
Nomura K, Minamizono S, Maeda E, Kim R, Iwata T, Hirayama J, et al. Cross-sectional survey of depressive symptoms and suicide-related ideation at a Japanese national university during the COVID-19 stay-home order. Environ Health Prev Med. (2021) 26:30. 10.1186/s12199-021-00953-1